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Apr 20, 2004 11:51 pm

Sometimes a Roughrider is What's Needed

I've just started reading Samantha Power's A Problem From Hell. I was a little surprised to find myself approving of Theodore Roosevelt for a change. I'm normally heavily influenced by Henry Adams' jaundiced view of his old student, especially in the Letters. 'Dinner at the White House last night, Theodore never stopped talking' sort of thing. Makes me laugh like a drain. But he was right in 1915, or at least right from a certain point of view, which is that the world and especially the US ought not to shrug and look away when a genocide is going on. TR wanted the US to do something about the Armenian genocide, and not many other Americans did. He wrote this to a Committee on Armenian Atrocities that was not urging US intervention:

Mass meetings on behalf of the Armenians amount to nothing whatever if they are mere methods of giving a sentimental but ineffective and safe outlet to the emotions of those engaged in them. Indeed they amount to less than nothing.

The Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau Senior, also wanted the US to intervene, and felt massively frustrated that as an ambassador he had to respect Turkish sovereignty and as it were mind his own business - he ended up quitting. Reminiscent of Romeo Dallaire and his terrible situation.

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Ophelia Benson - 4/21/2004

Yes, Power does deal with the contextual issues, not only later but all along. Absolutely, both Morgenthau and Roosevelt were doing something extraordinary; Power makes that clear. Yes, the Ottomans were already allied with German and Austro-Hungary, and that was part of the problem: US intervention would not only have violated 'state sovereignty' it also would have breached US neutrality. The US had compelling reasons not to do anything.

Morgenthau is really interesting - very reminiscent of the reactions of the people who were actually in Rwanda when everything went to hell. Needless to say, people who are actually on the scene, who know the people involved, who hear the soldiers arriving at Prime Minister Agathe's residence next door, then hear her screaming, then hear the shots fired and no more screaming, as Joyce Leader did - those people have different feelings (and opinions) about the whole subject from those of people in D.C. many thousands of miles away. Morgenthau was right there, and he was in torment - that's why he ended up resigning.

In a way, I find myself fighting Power off as I read. Because the reasons for not intervening really are sometimes good ones - especially since one doesn't know ahead of time what is going to transpire, whereas Power is writing afterwards, when all is clear. So it's all rather knotty - which makes the book all the more fascinating.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/21/2004

We've known that TR was campaigning for American entry into WWI long before Woodrow Wilson was prepared to make that decision. The thing about the Armenian holocaust, however, is new to me, at least. It does put things in a somewhat different light.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/21/2004

A quick fact sheet, for those of us who haven't had a chance to read Power yet:

My first reaction, as an historian, was both natural and quite counterintuitive: intervening against Turkey would have involved the US in WWI two years before it was remotely ready to get involved, against a power considerably more formidable than the Rwandan Tutsi. It's really extraordinary, under the circumstances, that figures like Roosevelt and Morgenthau would have felt so strongly about it. There would have been little or no support from European nations. I don't remember whether the Ottomans were allies of the German-Austrian-Hungarian axis at that point (they were by the end of the war, but I don't remember off the top of my head when they joined up).

But that doesn't mean that US intervention would have been a bad idea, just that the stakes would have been higher than in our more recent Rwandan situation. It would be nice if we'd have done something. But it would have required a massive shift in opinion and strong public committment. On the other hand, more attention to it in the US might have primed the public for earlier and more pointed opposition to the Nazis and the Holocaust.

I'll be curious, if you can update us, whether Power deals with this kind of contextual issue later on.

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